“LOVE, KENNEDY” — 3 stars — Heather Beers, Jasen Wade, Tatum Chiniquy, Yvonne D Bennett; PG (thematic elements); in general release
T.C. Christensen’s “Love, Kennedy” is touching, but its themes of faith and testimony may feel a little heavy-handed for nonreligious viewers.
Christensen’s fourth feature-length film recounts the story of Utah native Kennedy Hansen who died at 16 years old in 2014 after being diagnosed with Batten disease. But unlike many films revolving around a terminal illness, the movie doesn’t end after Kennedy’s death. Instead, it reaches further, attempting to show how Kennedy changed the lives of those in her community.
The film begins with a young, mischievous Kennedy (Tatum Chiniquy), who grows up active, happy and entirely devoted to her belief in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Christensen explores Kennedy’s relationship with her family and her faith, placing heavy emphasis on her early spiritual experiences. At times, the dialogue feels a little cloying, but Christensen could be forgiven for that, as the beginning, in retrospect, seems largely nostalgic.
About 30 minutes in, Kennedy receives a diagnosis of terminal Batten disease. The movie tracks Kennedy’s life as her health declines and introduces characters who will inevitably be changed by the end of the movie. Christensen follows Kennedy from seminary classes to stake dances to cheerleading rehearsals.
Kennedy dies near the end of the film, but she tells her parents to expect a miracle one month after her death. The remainder of the film focuses on the Velasquez family, who are the recipients of Kennedy’s miracle.
The film has its problems. For one, the dialogue is a little clunky at times, and the movie struggles with pacing. In some scenes, the pacing plays to its favor, giving emotions time to sink in. In others, it detracts from the story. The subplot with the Velasquez family, in particular, feels underdeveloped. Christensen makes large use of voice-over narration when he could have been served better by a little less telling and a little more showing.
However, the film has an undeniable poignancy to it. Special mention has to go to Jasen Wade and Heather Beers, who play Kennedy’s parents with realistic and touching emotion. Chiniquy as the titular Kennedy is genuine and convincing in what is no doubt a difficult role. Both Christensen and the actors are effective in eliciting emotional reactions. “Love, Kennedy” will most likely leave audiences sniffling and tearing up at several points throughout the movie.
At its core, the film is an exploration of modern faith, and it’s anything but subtle. In some ways, it feels like an LDS missionary lesson about the plan of salvation. “Love, Kennedy” is unquestionably marketed toward LDS viewers. Non-LDS viewers, however, will find it difficult not to sympathize with the Hansens’ story, even if they are skeptical about the film’s religious messages.
“Love, Kennedy" is rated PG for thematic elements; running time: 92 minutes.